May 2 – June 8, 2014
Kim Jones’s most recent show at Pierogi opens with a small acrylic on Xerox piece “Untitled, (Kim as Boy)” (1955 – 99). It presents a Xeroxed childhood photograph of the artist in boxer shorts or swim trunks overdrawn with intestines that stretch out to form an angular superstructure surrounding the artist’s head and shoulders, like the truss work of a Byzantine halo. Their ritualized self-disembowelment is reminiscent of Native American torture of their vanquished foes, or of missionaries at the dawn of the so-christened “New World.” Both the photo-drawing and the historical ritual simultaneously explicate and embody the trauma of invasive intervention, both ideological and corporeal. In this strong show of drawings and sculptures the combined works read like a type of entrail codex for understanding Jones’s peculiar perspective on spiritual and physical evisceration and recuperation.
Jones is a visionary artist in the old-fashioned sense. His work gains its universality by turning an inward narrative of mourning and longing for wholeness into multiple outward transgressions of proprietary social boundaries. This passage of the artist’s writing from a 2008 catalogue explains the dynamic:
I’m walking. The structure on my back is heavy. It takes me 12 hours to reach MacArthur Park. I sit there and rest in the shade of a palm tree. War, kidnapping, cannibalism. This is what I think about as I look out across the lake. Behind me a large group of rats is feeding... It is very peaceful.
The “structure” he most likely refers to here is that of his “Mudman” persona outfitting. I first encountered Jones in this guise on the streets of Soho prior to the neighborhood’s gentrification in the 1980s. Covered head to toe in sticks and mud, his shamanic figure could be seen walking or sitting on downtown city streets, often during gallery opening nights, in luddite contrast to what Jerry Saltz has characterized as the spectacle of “money and art having sex in public” at the height of the market then (which now seems rather tame compared to the current art market). Jones’s kind of ritualized art seemed rather naïvely romantic, and perhaps even desperate at the time, but in retrospect his gesture resonates in its sincere attempt to ground an aesthetic practice in a golem-like reaction to a de-spiritualized and disenchanted art world.
A fetish/sculpture of what appears to be an infant “Mudman” hangs at the entrance of the show. In it, intersecting broken dowels are lashed together around a baby figure like the aforementioned iconic halo in “Kim as Boy,” an untwined umbilical hanging down, ending in a barb of wooden spikes. The work evokes the preserved hunted heads from the Sepik Basin region of Papua New Guinea, serving as a spirit-capture vessel of sorts, but in this instance it is the artist cannibalizing his own myth. Like Walt Whitman in turns extending or contradicting himself, Jones makes himself a world that he then objectively mulls as both strangely native and wondrously cosmic.
The drawings in this show embody the wonderfully cosmic in their shape-shifting personae and sinuous line. Often reminiscent of the underground graphic style of 1960s Zap Comics artists like Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, the suite of ink and acrylic drawings assembled in the center gallery at Pierogi offers a universe of trippy interior narratives populated by dancing frogs or obese dragon-tailed mamas. Like the countercultural comics artists, Jones employs a dense cross-hatching that volumizes his imaginary actors in connective skeins of morphological psychodramas. In the drawing “Untitled 1971 – 72, 2013” (he often reworks his drawings decades later), a motley cast of characters includes a central female-looking figure mounting a plinth of classical columns, while a smaller African-American character sits looking up from a player piano as another female figure in Victorian or Elizabethan court garb emanates lines of speech from her stylized lips. There is really no making sense of this ensemble. It feels very “street” in its jumbled juxtapositions of the human comedy. This open-ended, social collage aspect of Jones’s drawings fills them with an acrid poignancy that one can almost smell. His mixed-media approach imbues the work with an expanded vocabulary of gesture, shifting from scumbled ink, to dry brush, to tightly penned line and sometimes colored washes of orange, red, and blue. In many of these drawings the male and female figures’ wildly extensive hair functions as a connective matrix negotiating potentially fraught synaptic interaction, like freak-flag circuit boards. The often arcane and courtly garb of some of Jones’s protagonists refer obliquely to outmoded social propriety on the verge of collapse, thereby offering a social allegory of the vanity of over-civilization.
Also included in this comprehensive show is a selection of the artist’s battle map drawings. Jones was on active duty as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War and these intricate drawings are party derived from this experience, although he drew similar images as a boy. Virtual topological maps of strategic hamlets, staging points, navigable waterways (with penis–like gunboat armadas), and armed camps are granularly rendered in maze-like and recursive line. These maps are often brutally crosscut with scribbled and smudged gestural vectors seemingly indicating strategic breakthroughs and troop surges. These gestures read like desperate attempts at wish-fulfillment: a quick resolution of conflict in the fog of war. Consistent with his work in other media, Jones lays out both the impossibility of assimilating trauma and its attempt at logical reconstruction in order to heal the wounds of psychic intervention and disorder. This is, after all, one of the most important functions of the transcendent, shamanic role, one that Jones has taken very seriously throughout his graphic personification and exegesis of a constant, earthly sorrow.